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the secret of chimneys

6 january 2021

In what is becoming an annual custom, I began the New Year by reading the most recent 90-year-old Agatha Christie novel to rise into the American public domain: this year, The Secret of Chimneys. By 1925, Agatha Christie was already well into the realm of self-parody – or rather, I suppose, parody of the genre of English country-house murder mystery that was well-worn by the time she joined its ranks in the early 1920s. The Secret of Chimneys is played entirely for laughs, a throwaway screwball comedy of corpses and kingdoms that all gets sorted out by teatime.

Chimneys is the name of a house, the country seat of a English nobleman, where all the political intrigue of Europe plays out. The particular intrigue that incites our plot is a scuffle for the throne of Herzoslovakia, contested by Balkan aristocrats, British politicians, a Jewish financier, a Pinkerton detective, a couple of resourceful New Women, and a dashing young adventurer named Anthony Cade who shows up just in time to hide one dead body and witness the fate of another.

"To describe Chimneys would be superfluous," our narrator informs us (94).

Descriptions of that historic place can be found in any guidebook. It is also No. 3 in Historic Homes of England, price 21s. On Thursday, coaches come over from Middlingham and view those portions of it which are open to the public. (94)
And she's right. Not about that dash of postmodern pseudofacts, which exist neither in her world nor our own, but about the superfluity of description itself in such a formulaic genre. Every great house in such books is a Clue (or Cluedo?) board. Every reader knows exactly what all of them look like.

And so with the valets, the governesses, the feckless alcoholics, the inspectors from Scotland Yard and the Sûreté, the daring international jewel thief, the dyspeptic earl and his spunky daughters. When every element of a book is shaken out of a mass-produced bag of tricks, the fun is in how they fall, not in their individual contours. "It's really dreadful of me saddling a perfect stranger with a dead body like this," the lovely Virginia Revel tells Anthony Cade (89). Dreadful and delicious.

Once again, I am not sure I can readily summarize the plot of a book that I just finished reading, because I'm not sure I could follow it – which helpfully keeps me from spoiling it. Suffice to say that the intrigue includes a cryptic code, a hidden treasure, secret passageways, a planted revolver, Communist conspirators, and a midnight signal from a darkened chamber.

Caricatures of English types abound, and all their prejudices against foreigners and one another are on display. There is the usual dash of anti-Semitism. Isaacstein, the Jewish financier, is "yellow-faced," "with a bald head and a hook nose"; he "looks foreign enough" and has a "curious name" (as if Gentile characters like Inspector Badgworthy didn't? – pp. 20, 94, 226, 27). "Dagos" and a game of "Red Indians" show up, and the inhabitants of Bechuanaland are cannibals (22, 161, 10). But Isaacstein, though a stereotype, is also intelligent, cultivated, speaks standard English, and despite attempts to frame him, entirely upright and innocent (spoiler, sorry). I must seem to keep apologizing for Agatha Christie, but it's more that I want to report her attitudes accurately. I don't think that the xenophobia in The Secret of Chimneys is malicious, but I don't think it's harmless either (I don't think Christie was parodying English racisms; I think she was having it both ways, laughing both at the English and at the people they despise). It's a complicated mix that keeps novels like The Secret of Chimneys readable, if flawed, 95 years later.

Christie, Agatha. The Secret of Chimneys. 1925. Kindle Edition.